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The Sons of Heaven by Kage Baker

Picture the scene (if you can): the Cro-Magnons are gathered round the fire in their modest pied-à-terre in the Dordogne (the women are waiting for homo to become sapiens while the men are waiting for cable). A sabre-toothed carcass is slowly turning on a spit, promising a feast to come. To pass the time, Papa has everyone on the edge of their seats with the latest instalment of the Adventures of Caveman Ug. Then, with a groan, he reads the fateful words, “Continued on the next rock” and, shock horror (!), delivery from the Rock of the Month Club is not due for weeks.

The art of narrative never changes. The storyteller introduces a cast of characters and puts them in a situational context. A series of events then builds towards a climax. The teller creates anticipation and tension in the audience. What will happen next? Well, as Scheherazade proved after marrying Shahryar, keeping your head requires you to repeatedly delay the answer until some time in the future.

In modern publishing, we have two convergent trends to contend with. The first is the length of the product called “a book”. Until about thirty years ago, most paperback books weighed in less than 75,000 words, usually for technical reasons, typeset on 192 pages. Now, 100,000 words plus is the norm. It’s the old “value-for-money”, “more-pages-for-the-buck” approach to publishing. The marketers have decided that bigger books sell better so that’s what the editors will commission. It matters not that each book would probably be better at half the length, the marketers know what sells and they have the sales figures to prove it.

Then comes the second trend. The accountants tell the commissioning editors that a series or serial sells better than a stand-alone novel. The theory goes that if you get the buying public hooked on a series character and build a narrative arc that will span, say, ten books, that’s all money in the bank for the publishers — although why stop at ten when Perry Rhodan Lemuria Vol. 1: Star Ark ran for 141 books and Larry Kent had around 431 volumes (an incredible record for a PI series you’ve probably never encountered)? Put both trends together and you have the theoretical capacity to sell millions of words set in the same shared universe or involving the same character(s) to a die-hard group of fans.

Anyway, this brings us neatly to the Company Sequence by Kage Baker and its concluding novel, The Sons of Heaven. So now those of us who have consumed this final slice of the pie know what happens to everyone on the 9th July 2355. I should explain my use of the word “sequence”. Ms Baker has produced a body of work in novel form, and in novelettes and short stories — some have been collected, some have been incorporated into a fix-up novel format, and the rest remain at large. This sprawling narrative arc is actually surprisingly interesting. It involves contending groups of Company cyborg immortals whose motives vary between preserving the humans and their creative works, and culling the humans and keeping the loot, and key humans who work for the Company until the Silence falls in 2355 (the Company has time travel but cannot foresee the future beyond the inauspicious date).

Ms Baker set everything in literary motion some ten years ago and, in the final novel, accounts for almost everyone who has managed to survive thus far. Sadly, this means that, if you haven’t read any of the sequence, starting at the end will be next to incomprehensible because you won’t know who anyone is nor what their motivations are.

Does this final episode all hang together? Well, I’m not going to spoil it all for the fans. All I will say is that I’m less than thrilled by her explanation of the Silence itself. Frankly, I think she’s got her causal determination tied in a knot and the overall resolution is ontologically unsatisfying. The problem may be stated simply. The Company has compiled a historical concordance of all the major events in history. To avoid falling into the paradox trap, it ensures that nothing disturbs the flow of recorded history. Indeed, knowing what disasters will occur enables the Company to profit. So, the plotting for all the major characters is based on the proposition that, regardless whether there is such a thing as free will, history cannot be changed.

But, on the 9th July 2355, events conspire to produce a cusp, a kind of probability node of such Earth-shaking magnitude, where no-one can predict which of the possible outcomes will emerge, i.e. at this point, linear time could break into multiple universes. Unfortunately, the learned author then tells us what actually happens on that date, explains how it was inevitable and, worse, describes the Earth after that date. Thus, even if we just stopped there, she would already have shot herself in the foot. The smooth mechanism that is plotted history, carved in stone as from 1st January 2356, has determined the single outcome to the Silence from the outset.

However, there is a further existential difficulty because Ms Baker allows the cyborgs to develop the individual ability to step outside and manipulate time. I cannot think of anything more likely to introduce anarchy into a determinate time stream than having a group able to ignore real time. Once any number of individuals has this power, it would be like a herd of elephants charging across time, flattening everything in its path. What was once linear time will almost immediately be fractured into multiple universes where everyone creates endless new realities by advertently or inadvertently introducing paradoxes into their pasts. If this doesn’t happen, then the power to ignore time was only illusory. For a fun examination of this theme, try David Gerrold’s excellent The Man Who Folded Himself.

But, if you don’t want to disassemble the work at a temporal or philosophical level, most of the other explanations and dispositions are quite elegant, all the armed groups get to lift their weapons in anger, and most of the biters get bit one way or another. So from the first moment the Company makes its appearance to the last page of this novel, the story is often compelling, sometimes amusing and only rarely dull.

Could the novels have been improved?

Definitely!

Reduction in length by at least 20% would have produced a lean and better structured plot. But everyone has to work within the limits set for them. If I was Ms Baker, I too would write at this length because that’s what pays the bills.

But I cannot ignore the fact that, as a writer, Ms Baker is better at shorter length. It is instructive to compare any of the novels with one of the novelettes like Rude Mechanicals (Subterranean Press). Here her wit and style are clearly on show. Not weighed down by excess verbiage, the plot stands free and clear, winging its way through twist and turn, even introducing a little history for our enlightenment (the theatrical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by German director Max Reinhardt in the 1930s). So the stand-alone short stories, novelettes and collections are significantly superior, but their appeal is enhanced by the context. No matter how good individually, the stories have added value because they are part of the whole which is the Company sequence. Yes, the novels suffer from the padding syndrome to bring them to the publisher’s desired length, but the overarching narrative is good enough to carry us through the dead patches to get to the end.

So, if you like a little history, leavened with some satire and mixed with a twist of science fiction, you should start off with the first novel in the sequence, In the Garden of Iden. The journey may be long to get to The Sons of Heaven, particularly if you decide to track down all the intervening short stories and novelettes but, for me at least, the whole sequence has been a real rock turner.

For my other reviews of Kage Baker, see: Women of Nell Gwynne’s, The Empress of Mars, House of the Stag, The Bird of the River, Not Less Than Gods, and Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key.

  1. June 29, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Okay, I guess I’m just going to have to give in and read Kage Baker–this is like the tenth time I’ve come across one of her fans–and I figure that’s just another sign to indulge—ahhh…read or write? write or read? and there’s always that growing list of books to explore..okay okay..despite her flaws–who is perfect? well perhaps The Master and Maragarita is the perfect Russian satire…or just the perfect satire…okay Kage…thanks for your thoughtful review of her work.

    • David Marshall
      June 29, 2009 at 6:39 pm

      Hi, thanks for the comment. As a series, this is full of good ideas and, on that ground, is worth a look. But I repeat that she is better at shorter length. Not all the novels are of the highest quality. If you are setting out to read her for the first time, try the collections of short stories first and then start the series at the beginning with Garden of Iden.

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